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MBF SPEAKS AT GAME OVER COMMISSION TO PROTECT YOUTH ATHLETES: An independent investigation of Dr. Larry Nassar

On Monday, November 4th the Game Over Commission, comprised of national experts in child sexual abuse heard testimony from survivors, advocates, prevention experts, and investigative journalists at a public hearing at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia to discuss the sex abuse investigation on Dr. Larry Nassar, team doctor for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University. The abuse impacted 156 women and girls and possibly many others who may still be too scared to report their abuse according to experts. The Commission, under the leadership of Child USA, an organization dedicated to protecting children and preventing abuse, is working to find solutions to ensure this type of sexual abuse of youth athletes never happens again.

The Game Over: Commission to Protect Youth Athletes, invited the Monique Burr Foundation for Children team to speak at the public hearing. MBF’s Program Director, Stacy Pendarvis gave the following testimony which can also be viewed here, beginning at 4:14:56:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HR8f5tQwjcM#action=share.

Good afternoon,

My name is Stacy Pendarvis and I am the Program Director at the Monique Burr Foundation for Children, an organization dedicated to protecting children from abuse, exploitation, bullying, and other types of victimization through prevention education programs for youth. I would like to thank the Game Over Commission for their ongoing work related to Larry Nassar’s abuse of hundreds of young girls and women and for the invitation to testify today.

Interestingly, I began working in child protection during my first year of graduate school as a Guardian Ad Litem volunteer when I heard commissioner, Dr. Sharon Cooper speak. In the 24 years since, I have focused solely on prevention and I have studied, read, developed, and tested prevention methodologies and programs.

During that time, I have seen many child abuse cases spark anger, and even outrage, including:

  • The Catholic Church
  • Jerry Sandusky
  • And of course, why we are here today, Larry Nassar

But the anger and outrage always seem to fade, and the abuse of children continues. As a society, we have allowed this perpetration and injustice to children. Whether it is from a lack of awareness or understanding, or from turning away from that which scares us, or that which we don’t want to admit really exists, we have not done a very good job of protecting children.

I would like to say it’s because we still think of perpetrators as evil, lurking strangers. But I believe that image has changed with the very public cases of abuse by priests, coaches, and doctors. Most people now know that perpetrators are kind, helpful, upstanding community members, just like you and me. They have notable careers, they have families, many have children, and they blend easily into society. They are youth workers, pastors, teachers, doctors, parents, and family members, and they are often overlooked. Larry Nassar was one of those people.

And his crimes, like those of so many others, were overlooked as well. However, unlike many other abuse scandals in the past, the Nassar case prompted legislation and ongoing conversations such as the ones here today. Perhaps that is because of the value we place on athletes in society, but regardless, I still ask, is it enough?

I understand that the vast majority of citizens do not think about child sexual abuse on a daily basis. If your job is to teach children, you go to school and teach children. If your job is to develop youth athletes, you go to the gym or field and you coach children.

Our goal at the Monique Burr Foundation for Children is to create a world where every day, every citizen not only THINKS about the protection of children but ENSURES the protection of children from sexual abuse and other types of victimization.

The sole mission of the Monique Burr Foundation for Children is to provide the best prevention programs for youth and to partner with schools and organizations to reach the children they serve with those programs, and we have been doing that successfully for 22 years. We have reached more than 3 million children in schools across the country with our evidence-based and evidence-informed comprehensive programs, and we have the data to show their effectiveness. But as a prevention specialist, as a mother, it is the stories I hear on a daily basis, rather than results of any research study, that tell me these programs are protecting children from sexual abuse, bullying, digital dangers, and more.

We know that child-focused prevention is just one piece of a much larger, comprehensive strategy to protect children and that is why we partner with many other organizations. But we also know that educating and empowering children IS an effective strategy and yet historically, it has been the least often mentioned or sanctioned method across the board.

With the passage of the Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sport Authorization Act of 2017, among the reporting requirements and the designation of the US Center for SafeSport, there are other requirements included.

As the Commissioners may know, the legislation includes several points on training and education, including:

The US Center for SafeSport shall: maintain an office for education and outreach that shall develop training, oversight practices, policies, and procedures to prevent the abuse,  including emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, of amateur athletes participating in amateur athletic activities through national governing bodies and para-olympic sports organizations; Applicable amateur sports organization shall offer and provide consistent training to all adult members who are in regular contact with amateur athletes who are minors, and subject to parental consent, to members who are minors, regarding prevention and reporting of child abuse to allow a complainant to report easily an incident of child abuse to appropriate persons.

Despite flaws in the language within the law, it was a step in the right direction. Yet, how many youth athletes have received such prevention education since the passage of the act two years ago? While there is no single repository for information on such education available or provided, my observations have been that very little has been done.

I think it is important to provide reporting guidelines and methods and to investigate and remove abusive coaches in an effort to protect children. It is also important to educate adults. But it is equally important to educate children. Conversations and awareness campaigns are a good start, but they don’t do much to protect kids. Awareness plus action equals prevention, and prevention is what is needed now.

 When we talk about the failure of institutions to protect children, we must also talk about the societal failure to educate children and empower them with self-protection and reporting skills. Perhaps this is because there are some who believe children cannot learn and should not bear the responsibility to protect themselves from manipulative, abusive adults. I think we all agree that adults are responsible for keeping children safe, but research shows that children can and do learn protective concepts, and as such it is irresponsible to not educate children. However, when we teach children to report red flags and/or abuse, we must be able to trust that those who receive the reports will do what is right and needed to protect those children and as we know with Nassar’s victims, this is not what happened.  

The sports world finds itself in a situation similar to that which the educational system found itself a decade ago. From Vermont in 2009 to Illinois in 2011 and the 35 states since, 37 states in all have passed Erin’s Law or a similar act requiring schools to provide child sexual abuse prevention education to youth. While it is not the primary function of schools to teach these topics, many schools now teach children Red Flags and safety rules to help adults keep them safe. Many schools have overcome the obstacles, including the fear, lack of resources, and lack of time, and many now see the value in prevention education.

I understand there are significant differences between the educational system and the sports world. Schools are used to oversight and regulations, sports owners and coaches are not. And schools have addressed similar topics, like drugs, mental health, bullying, suicide, and school shootings, and sports programs have not We know there are many child protection and youth-serving organizations with a mission to protect children, and some of them are working toward the same goals we are. We also know there are roadblocks and there is fear and hesitation, but every day that goes by without educating youth athletes, means more children WILL BE sexually abused.

It’s easy for those of us who aren’t victims to say the words, sexual abuse. We know what it is, yet we do not live the details. Victims do. In fact, they suffer through every single act, every single day, perhaps every single minute of their lives. And WE NEED TO DO BETTER.

The Monique Burr Foundation for Children hasprevention programs based on research and best practices that were developed for schools, youth-serving organizations, and the youth sports industry. And the programs are available now. Our sports-focused program, MBF Athlete Safety Mattersin addition to teaching healthy vs. unhealthy relationships, boundaries, and red flags for all 4 types of abuse, addresses abuse dynamics prevalent in sport: power, trust, grooming, and more, and it speaks to the situations and players unique to sports.

Will it be hard? Yes. Will it require change? Yes. In fact we know that there are already challenges. We have worked in several venues and have had to go back and modify what we’ve created because there are challenges with addressing youth in sports.What we don’t need to do is spend time determining what to do. We know what to do. We also don’t need to reinvent the wheel. And we don’t need organizations that just want to check a box. Every single sports organization can do something today, TODAY, to protect their youth athletes. Moving forward, youth sports organizations need to be held accountable and prevention education needs to be mandatory.

One organization that is doing something NOW is the United States Allstar Federation for Cheer and Dance. As the national partner for USASF, MBF has seen firsthand their commitment to putting their athletes first and to providing prevention education. What we need to see is others doing the same thing.

The simple truth is that athletes are valued in our country. And the world is watching. They are watching to see what we will do to protect youth athletes in the aftermath of Larry Nassar. And to date, we have not done enough. Now is the time to act. We can maintain the status quo, or we can set the fear and excuses aside and step up and do what needs to be done to protect children.

In closing, I would like to again thank this commission for their efforts. It is my sincere hope that the work of this Commission, my testimony, and that of the others who are also speaking here today will move the conversation toward solutions and actions that will make a true impact and propel us from being reactive to being proactive and showing we value and protect all children.

I also hope that the reach will be much farther than sports – that all systems in our country will act to protect children and stop their abuse and exploitation. Research shows that prevention education works. It is available to begin using TODAY. And it can be done, even in the sports world, if we are strong enough, committed enough, and relentless enough to make it happen.

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